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Field Notes
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Photograph courtesy Guy Gugliotta
Guy Gugliotta
Interview by Carolyn Fox

Describe your attempt to gain access to the Russian Soyuz launch.

I still have my visa ready to go in my passport, but our plans foundered at the last minute, and it was never really clear to me how it happened. The "why" was fairly obvious. A couple of weeks before the launch, the Russian government announced a very high Russian official was going to attend. Instead of just a few science geeks, like me, a whole swarm of reporters was anticipated, and the event now had political overtones. We pulled all the strings we could, but the Russians wouldn't take us.

Was there an interview that stood out?

NASA administrator Mike Griffin is always a good interview. He is one of the few high-ranking public officials I have ever met who tells you what he thinks, and does so with an admirable economy of words. Oddly enough his bluntness is one of the things that makes him a big favorite of Congress, even though he often tells them things they don't want to hear.

When he first took over at NASA, Griffin looked like he got a kick out of talking to reporters, but he's not nearly as cheerful now. This may be because he thinks he's been burned, but it could also be because he's been answering a lot of the same questions for a couple of years now and he's getting bored. This is something to avoid with Mike Griffin.

Many NASA scientists and engineers have told me that when Griffin comes to see you, you better have your presentation down pat, because he doesn't like to waste time and he will cut you dead if you're not ready. The same could be said for reporters. Figure out what you want to know, ask it, write it down, and leave.

Is there anything else you wish you could have included in the story?

Yes, I interviewed Boris Chertok, the nonagenarian former deputy chief of the Soviet space program by email with the help of our interpreter in Russia. I don't know if any reporter from the West has ever spoken with him, but he told me a couple of things that I had never heard before.

In particular, he made the point that Russian scientists during the Sputnik era were far more preoccupied with building intercontinental ballistic missiles for the Cold War than with getting into space. He said the Soviet engineers were dumbfounded by the sensation Sputnik caused.

"But as I remember," he told me, "we were more turned on by the fact that we finally had an intercontinental rocket."